“How good is this?” Scott might have said to Jenny, when word came that he’d be the first Australian prime minister since John Howard in 2006 to score a White House state dinner when he visits Washington in September.
It’s now widely observed that Morrison and President Donald Trump have struck an early bromance, demonstrated by the dinner Trump hosted for Morrison at the G20 and now the planned gold star reception.
Never mind that many Western leaders view with the deepest concern Trump’s erratic foreign policy, leading to caution in their comments.
Morrison last weekend happily praised the president as “a strong leader, who says what he’s going to do and then goes and does it. … I can always rely on President Trump to follow through on what he says.”
Key to this flourishing relationship is Trump’s assessment of Morrison. As Herald Sun columnist Shaun Carney, explaining “Why POTUS loves ScoMo”, wrote this week, “Morrison fits Trump’s requirements pretty much down to a tee. Morrison is a conservative and an election winner. Trump loves winners.”
And of course there is Morrison’s ministerial record on border security.
Even Malcolm Turnbull received some generally favourable rub-off from the government’s tough line on people smuggling. It was one point referenced positively (sort of) by Trump during that excruciating phone conversation in which Turnbull begged the then-new president to honour Barack Obama’s deal to take refugees from Nauru and Manus.
Turnbull and Morrison are very different, but there’s a similarity in their approaches to dealing with this idiosyncratic president. Turnbull sought, and Morrison seeks, to establish a link-in with Trump on a personal basis.
Turnbull made his pitch with the line that “I am a highly transactional businessman like you”. In the Turnbull time, Trump did reluctantly agree to honour the refugee deal, and Australia – aided by a range of US advocates, including members of Congress – won exemptions from Trump’s imposition of steel and aluminium tariffs. (These days Trump is somewhat irritated that Australian aluminium exports to the US have ballooned, as its position has been strengthened vis-a-vis competitors hit by the tariffs.)
It’s too early for a detailed read of how Morrison will handle foreign policy generally. But the description by a Liberal colleague has Trumpian overtones: “[Morrison] likes to establish relationships and he likes to be a dealmaker. He likes to be able to demonstrate back home the benefits of these international dealings.”
One crucial continuity in Australia’s handling of the Trump administration has been the work of Joe Hockey, Australia’s man in Washington. Hockey is the accidental ambassador, the former treasurer who was a casualty of the coup that took down Tony Abbott.
A hail-fellow-well-met character, Hockey has been the right man for the Trump era. Simon Jackman, CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, says: “Much of what we’re seeing owes a lot to Hockey. He’s been a remarkably effective diplomat for Australia. He’s very tight with the inner [Trump] circle.” Topped by his golf diplomacy with the president himself.
As well as schmoozing, Hockey (to be replaced early next year by former minister and one-time Howard chief-of-staff Arthur Sinodinos) is also willing to remind the Americans in forceful terms of how solid an ally Australia has been.
That takes us to a key unknown in this evolving Trump-Morrison relationship. Were the US to resort to the use of military force against Iran, would Trump ask Australia for some involvement? Probably. In such circumstances, as we’ve seen previously, Australia’s presence would be for the sake of appearances.
If a request ever came, it’s close to impossible to believe Morrison would say no. Australia never does. But any involvement would likely be limited to joining international patrols and escorts of oil tankers. Morrison recently said that while he was not getting into hypotheticals, “it’s not unheard of to have Australian frigates in that part of the world engaged in maritime operations”.
Jackman detects “growing weariness” in Canberra strategic circles at Australia’s support of US efforts in the Middle East, especially given Australia’s priorities are increasingly with the “step up” in the Pacific.
That “step up” is driven primarily by the push of China deeper into the region.
Morrison has already marked out the Pacific as a priority in his foreign policy – one that fans out into the much broader issue of managing relations with China, on which so much of our prosperity depends.
The perennial talk about Australia facing a choice between the US and China is false. This is because the alliance will always have the stronger overall pull, however vital the China relationship is and however specific issues play out.
Despite the aim of keeping Australia’s dealing with China calm and pragmatic, experience shows that is near impossible. Irritants keep arising, whether it is Chinese interference in Australia via cyber attacks and the like, pressure in the South Pacific, or, as we saw this week, the fallout from an ABC expose about China’s appalling treatment of the Uyghurs.
On the Pacific stage, ANU professor of strategic studies Hugh White is highly sceptical of the effectiveness of trying to stop China’s encroachments.
Writing in the July issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, White argues that China’s “ambitions constitute a far bigger threat to US leadership in Asia than ever before, and a far bigger threat to Australia’s position in the South Pacific than we have ever faced. The costs of us of trying to keep China out of the region might simply prove impossible to bear.”
A cheaper alternative, White suggest, would be to boost our own military capabilities to deal with come what may; he argues we should engage in the region to the maximum but abandon “our traditional ideas about keeping intruders out of the South Pacific”.
Others see the situation in less stark terms, suggesting that while Australia can’t compete with China in dollars in the Pacific, it can give leaders of these countries more choice, allowing them to avoid getting sucked into a net of Chinese influence.
China will be a major item on the talks menu in Morrison’s Washington visit – for which he arrives September 19 – including the US-China trade dispute put on hold at the G20.
One challenge in being feted by Trump is capitalising on the “bestie” status while avoiding the appearance of over-familiarity and identification with a leader Australians don’t much like or trust.
This year’s Lowy Institute poll showed that, despite their strong recognition of the importance of the alliance relationship for Australia’s security (72%), only 25% of Australians had confidence in Trump “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”.
Allan Behm, former defence official and former adviser to Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong, suggests Morrison take “a long-handled spoon” to Washington. “Both are foreign policy novices. Morrison has to be very careful he doesn’t allow the developing personal relationship with Trump to draw him into decisions he might later regret – especially in relation to Iran.”
Morrison has already invited Trump to Australia for the Presidents Cup golf event in Melbourne in December. If he came, it might be a case of careful what you wish for. Especially when it’s Melbourne.
On his US visit, it will be important the PM be seen as his own man. He will have a significant opportunity when, as anticipated, he takes part in the leaders week at the United Nations in New York. He is expected to address the General Assembly.
However, one notable dilemma could be presented by UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Climate Summit on Monday, September 23. If Morrison attends, there could be some awkward conversations; if he doesn’t, it’s a bad look for Australia.